By Brett Carlson
OACOMA, S.D. – Lake Francis Case lived up to its reputation as one of the Midwest’s best walleye fisheries on day one of the 2021 National Walleye Tour season opener, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. One hundred eleven pros brought a five-fish limit to the scale Thursday, an astounding figure considering South Dakota’s no-cull rules. While Francis Case is known more for numbers than big walleyes, pro leader Ryan Rieger had no problem coaxing a few Missouri River females.
Rieger, the Bell Vernon, Penn., pro, officially leads the tournament with 19.29 pounds. Rieger drove 20 hours to get to the Chamberlain area and practiced for six straight days. Not once in those six days did he handle an over, a walleye longer than 20 inches. In this event, anglers (fishing as a team) are allowed to keep eight fish and weigh their best five. Culling is not permitted, and only two of those eight fish each day can be overs.
Walleye fans might remember Dylan Nussbaum making a similar 20-plus-hour trek to Devils Lake in 2018. At that event, Nussbaum stole the headlines and shocked the walleye world as the youngest pro to win a tour-level event. Rieger finished second to Nussbaum, and the two continue to travel and practice together. The common denominator between these two tournaments is not just the Dakotas, but also leadcore.
“The Kinzua Reservoir back home is where we figured out the leadcore bite,” explained Rieger. “We brought it to Devils, and we brought it here to this beautiful place.”
Rieger’s initial plan was to troll upstream to a jigging spot, but the trolling bite was so strong, he never pulled out the jigging rods. Instead, he caught 35 walleyes by 12:30 – the two biggest going 28 and 24 inches.
“I’m just a leadcore fisherman, and this seems like a leadcore place. Our best crankbaits have been Rapalas – Shad Raps and Shad Dancers. Today was better for both size and numbers, but to be honest, you don’t really know what you got until you beat it to death.”
While Rieger is new to Francis Case, he knew catching a single over, let alone two, was a game changer.
“The first over was 24 inches, and it was our first fish of the day. I was freaking trembling and shaking. Of course, that fish kept us there. A few passes later, we caught the 28. It’s an adrenaline rush like you wouldn’t believe.”
Rieger plans to employ the same game plan tomorrow, but does have a Plan B if necessary.
“The only problem with Plan B is that it’s 25 miles away, so I hope I never make it there.”
The fourth-year NWT pro will start the final day with nearly a 2-pound lead.
“It’s been a true dream of mine to win a National Walleye Tour tournament. That second at Devils wasn’t so bad because Dylan won.”
Kemos comes out swinging
Tommy Kemos, the 2014 Lucas Oil Angler of the Year, started his 2021 campaign with a bang. The Triton pro caught an over as his first official walleye of the new tournament season.
“I didn’t catch a fish for the first hour and a half this morning,” recalled Kemos. “The water cooled down in my area, but I could still see them on my LiveScope, so I stuck with it.”
The persistence was worth it as he boxed all eight keepers before noon. His biggest fish was a 23-incher that bit around 10:30 this morning. He also had two near-perfect slot fish at 19 1/2 and 19 3/4 inches. Both of those slots were fat prespawners, something Kemos called “absolutely lucky.” His five best weighed 17.60 pounds.
“As the sun came up, they started to bite, but they were deeper than where I left them in practice. I did catch three overs today and had to throw one back.”
Kemos explained that he’s pitching Strike King crater-head jigs with fatheads. The jig, which he designed, allows the bait to stand perfectly on the bottom. Kemos said he’s pitching to intermediate depths and altering angles.
“I’m using my side imaging to locate the areas, then I’m actually looking at the fish as I cast at them. The fish are very lethargic right now. I just have to keep the jig in front of them and let that fathead do the work. With the electronics, you can sort of get a feel for what they’re up to.”
Kemos believes he’s around the winning fish, but tomorrow will be another day of difficult decisions.
“This is such a different season for us, because now we’re fishing for a true championship. You need to come in with fish every day. I’m going to swing for the fence, but with having three fish to play with, you don’t have to get crazy either.”
Courts cruises to third
In third place is veteran stick Mark Courts with 16.98 pounds. The Berkley pro experienced a strong practice and was optimistic, but the day still turned out better than anticipated.
“It was better than I thought, and I knew it was going to be good,” said the Harris, Minn., native. “I wasn’t sure it was going to be as good with the traffic. There is big-time traffic in the area, but there’s also an incredible amount of fish.”
Courts explained that he’s fishing a smooth flat with just clams and gravel. With his side imaging, he too can see the walleyes he’s targeting. Courts was done fishing at 1:30 p.m. with eight in his livewell, two of which were overs.
“I started out trolling, and then I switched to pitching. I caught one over on each. Berkley Flicker Minnows and Berkley Power Swimmers have been big. I bet we caught 50 fish today; it’s just a matter of sorting through them and getting them in the right order. Today I was fortunate to get the two key bites I needed.”
Lorensen fourth, Parsons fifth
Rounding out the top five are local pro Troy Lorensen and Nitro pro Chase Parsons. Lorensen, the Oacoma, S.D., angler, caught a limit weighing 16.49 pounds for fourth place.
Parsons, the “Next Bite” TV host and son of legendary pro Gary Parsons, sits fifth with 15.98 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros after day one on Lake Francis Case:
6th: Max Wilson of Campbellsport, Wis., five walleyes, 15.90
7th: Brian Bashore of Sioux Falls, S.D., five walleyes, 15.79
8th: Ryan Buddie of Amherst, Ohio, five walleyes, 15.64
9th: Randy Hummel of Windom, Minn., five walleyes, 15.60
10th: Kevin McQuoid of Isle, Minn., five walleyes, 15.19
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field takes off from Arrowwood Resort & Conference Center at Cedar Shore, located at 1500 Shoreline Dr. in Oacoma. The final weigh-in also takes place at the Arrowwood Resort Ramp, beginning at 3 p.m.